- Victorian Gothic Cityscape
Jamieson Ridenhour’s Study of metropolitan settings in Gothic literature, In Darkest London: The Gothic Cityscape in Victorian Literature, begins more poignantly and personally than academic writing often does, opening with a vignette about the author’s fondness for old Universal horror films. These classic set pieces, populated by Elvira, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, spur his investigation into “the Gothic novel’s shift from pastoral to urban settings,” of which “few have provided an in-depth study.” The introduction is both charming and jarring, as it works to place the reader in a personal encounter with the Gothic and simultaneously strains the sense of academic commitment to the same subject. (Ridenhour’s choice to begin with an homage to the isolation and eeriness of the Gothic novel seems especially odd: “It is a dark, foggy night. You are alone in a narrow, cobblestoned alleyway.… [End Page 570] You had thought you were alone, but now you hear the echoing tap of footsteps.…”)
Once beyond the exaggerated dramatics of the introduction, however, Ridenhour’s study proves itself to be richly situated in the context of journalistic and eyewitness accounts, careful close readings of both canonical and lesser-known Gothic works, and unexpected (but very welcome) nods to both Benjamin and Bahktin. The chapters successively set up a wide-ranging definition of the urban Gothic in literature, moving from traditional literary definitions of the word “Gothic” to the growth of London and its representation in writing throughout the nineteenth century, culminating in a surprising investigation of dialogism and heteroglossia in Victorian literature. It is Ridenhour’s historical research that makes his comparisons between fiction and reality—between Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the contemporaneous Jack the Ripper murders, for example—so compelling. The inclusion of excerpts from Victorian newspapers such as St. Stephen’s Review and even from letters sent to London police aptly demonstrate the wedding of social anxieties with metaphorical worries, and for those new to scholarship on the Victorian Gothic, this historical background is particularly helpful.
Ridenhour’s final three chapters—one on the Gothic flaneur, one on Bahktin’s theory of heteroglossia, and one on modern examples of socalled “teleological anxiety” and “historical specificity”—form the crux of the book’s relevance to scholars of the Victorian Gothic. Ridenhour cleverly seizes on the nearly clichéd attributes of the flaneur as defined by Baudelaire and Benjamin and transforms the figure’s “aloof detachment” into “terrifying isolation” by virtue of his encounter with the Gothic. In this chapter, Ridenhour provides a unique spin on the famous flaneur by using what Graeme Gilloch describes as “‘the interplay between the city as bestial and the city as beautiful’” to elucidate the sinister side of a typically and otherwise detached observer of cityscapes. Here, Ridenhour also manages to read the flaneur as lost as opposed to wandering; it is his insistence on a sense of malevolence that differentiates the two. He chooses Arthur Machen’s underrated novel The Three Impostors to illustrate this sense of urban paranoia, which further speaks to his claim that the setting of the urban Gothic has gone largely unexamined. He closes chapter four with an examination of James Thomson’s poem The City of Dreadful Night, which seems somewhat out of place considering his overarching emphasis on novels and narrative. Nevertheless, his reading of the narrator’s flaneur is [End Page 571] at once apt and engrossing, effectively highlighting the way in which the flaneur’s “observations and encounters make him not at home in the city and its crowds, but rather disoriented, uneasy, and ultimately terrified.”
Ridenhour’s most successful chapter, “Dialogues in the Dark,” focuses on Bahktin’s concept of “heterogeneous stylistic unities” to turn the familiar discussion of “enlightened present” versus “primitive past” within the Gothic narrative into a more creative discussion that locates this tension in the depiction of the city itself. Beginning with Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, Ridenhour focuses on the “overlapping, contradictory but mutually informing discourses” that...